The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire


Sermon - October 23, 2016
Scripture Reading: Luke 18:9-14
Sermon Title:
“The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The Rev. Robert Vodra


     After reading the scripture this morning I thought “Wow, not much to it, this could be a short sermon.”  Be humble, don’t be like the Pharisee.  However the more I looked at it, the more layers came out, and the more I realized it has nothing to do with the Pharisee and tax collector. 

     I knew a boy growing up who was really good at sports.  Didn’t seem to matter which ones.  He was taller, so basketball was probably the one that he was best at, but he also played football, he could run really fast.  In the spring he did track and cross country.  He also was very good at soccer and baseball.  In High School, because he was so good, he was on all the teams.  At least when I was in High School there were a few teams that anyone could join.  Cross country, no tryouts, you show up, you run, you are on the team.  Track I imagine you had to try out for some spots, but if you could find something that nobody else was good at, they would probably be happy to have you do it.  When this student tried out, everyone knew he was going to make the team. 

     He worked hard.  When he was not training with a team, he was running on his own, or working out after school.  He also excelled in academics.  He was not the class valedictorian, but certainly in the top 20 students, and probably somewhere in top 10.  And to top it off, he was a nice guy.  Knew everyone’s name in the school and would stop and talk with anyone in the school. 

     But there was one thing that I didn’t like about him.  He did it all.  He was good at sports because he trained hard.  He was good academically because he studied hard.  He was nice because he learned everyone’s name in the school. 

     Some of us were not as talented as he was.  I tried a few sports in High School, but was not very good at any, so would finish the season, but not sign up for that one again.  And I struggled in some of my classes.  English, higher math, Spanish, all not very good.  I passed, but some by the skin of my teeth.  While some may have been due to lack of motivation, there were some things that I just didn’t understand.  How is Moby Dick not about a guy and a fish?  Some of that math, where your answer can be shown on a graph, so any one of an infinite number of “X’s” will result in “B” becoming a certain number.  Reduce that equation and show it on a graph.  I did know a fair number of people in my high school, but my high school was pretty big.  We also lived in an area with a high turnover rate.  In my senior class in High School they brought everyone together who started Kindergarten in town, there were about 30 of us. 

     But I really excelled in Science.  Would be pulling a low C or maybe D in some class, but an A in Honor’s or AP level science.  I had a gift for understanding and doing well in Science.  Of course it took some work, but for some reason I could see it.  Shoot an imaginary arrow up in the air, with a starting angle and velocity and I could tell you how high it went, and how far it traveled.  Strange since I could not draw a graph when I went down the hall to the math class. 

     I always considered this a gift.  The boy I knew in school had many gifts.  He was good at all sports, he was good in his classes, he was good at remembering names.  But he felt like he was good because he worked hard, not because he had a gift for any of these.  We all have gifts and we all have things we struggle with.  There are some things that, no matter how hard we try, we are not good at. 

     Let’s go back to the Pharisee.  ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  Luke usually sets up Pharisees as the bad person.  He is not.  There is nothing wrong with fasting twice a week, and certainly nothing wrong with giving 10% of all your income away.  We can also assume that he is being truthful. Is not a thieve, a rogue, or an adulterer.  Again, these are good things. 

     But he assumes he is all these things by the things that he does.  One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon the Lord's benevolence. Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn't so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.

     In the temple in Jerusalem there were sections.  Even today, or at least 30 years ago and I assume still today, if you go to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem there are two sections, one for men and one for women.  The Wailing wall is part of the retaining wall that was probably built by Herod just before Jesus was born while expanding the temple property.  In Judaism it is considered a very holy place, almost the closest place you can get to where the temple stood.  Before the temple was destroyed, after Jesus died, about 70 CE, there were gates that led into the temple.  Outside the first gates anyone could gather.  It was still part of the temple complex, but that is probably where Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers.  Inside the first gates was the court of the women.  Despite its name, it could be used by all Jews, male and female, and did include a place for lepers, who were unclean.  There was dancing and music in that court.  Inside that was the court of the Israelites.  This was only for men.  From there Jewish men could see the court of the priests, which is where sacrifices were performed.  Only priests could enter that area.  And beyond that was the Holy of Holy.  This is where the ark of the covenant probably sat at one time, maybe when Jesus was there, not really clear.  But even if the ark was not there, that is where God lived. 

     Now if you were told that God lived right up here, but the organ pipes, many of you would want to sit in the front pew.  Be as close to God as you possibly can.  Maybe even join the choir so you can sit really close.  But others of you would not be as confident.  You might feel more comfortable in the back row.  There are some weeks were I am not sure I would even want to come in to the church, not lived the way that I should have. 

     The man in this story was a Pharisee.  Pharisees believed that the laws of Moses were to be kept at all times, so they kept to themselves to keep themselves pure.  Pharisee means someone set apart, so they set themselves apart.  Went to the temple to worship God, wanted to be as close to God as possible.  Since they probably were not priests, they might not be in the courts of the priests, but could be right outside of hat. 

     The tax collector was outside the court of the women.  Far away from God physically.  While the Pharisee knew he was close to God, all the tax collector could do was hope that God would hear him.

     And do you remember what happened when Jesus died on the cross?  Great earthquake, earth turned dark and the curtain in the temple was ripped in two.  Suddenly there was no division between God, the priests and Levites, the Pharisees and Israelites, the men and women, and even those who were not allowed in the temple at all.  Through Jesus’ death all those things which divided us were torn apart. 

     But even today we try to put people into groups.  Those who go to church, those who don’t go to church.  Those sinners, and those of us who try to refrain from sinning.  Alcoholic and those who do not drink much or at all.  Those who work hard and those who are looking for work.  Those with money and those without money.  Those who are athletic and those who are not athletic.  Those who are grateful for the gifts that God gave them, and those who feel that they have earned everything by their own hard work.  In other words, those who are in or those who are out.

     I have learned that most of the time, when we put people into groups like that, God is with the other group.  We would expect God to be with the Pharisee, the one who is trying so hard to follow every Jewish rule, who is in the temple, as close to God as he can get.  Yet, God is with the tax collector.  This parable is finally not about a Pharisee and a tax collector, it is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly

     When they leave the temple that day the Pharisee is still Righteous.  He came to the temple righteous and leaves righteous.  The tax collector goes home justified, not because of anything he did.  He didn’t become Jewish, bring a sacrifice to the temple, give 10% of his income to the temple, he knelt before the temple, with nothing to claim but his dependence on God's mercy. When this happens to us and we forget if only for a moment our human-constructed divisions and stand before God aware only of our need, then we, too, are justified by the God of Jesus and invited to return to our homes in mercy, grace, and gratitude.